But first, a Warning to Readers, especially the Weak-Willed - HERE BE (SOME) SPOILERS!
The following events are set in the background - the extreme background - of the events forming Chapters V to X of Book Five in the final book of a certain massively popular fantasy trilogy. While every effort has been made to obscure the plot details, a certain amount of spoilage has been unavoidable in two or three areas. Anyone who has not read the book in question, and intends to, is gently advised not to read this. Or you could wait for some kind of screen interpretation, possibly coming out in the near future.
So, as the saying goes, if you don't want to know the score, look away now.
PS - This time I really, really mean it!
Chapter Eight ~ The Monsters' Last Stand
'The object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard die for his.' -
General George Patton.
'I'm gonna cut you up, pretty boy!'
Traditional orcish war-cry.
'Can you see anything?'
Before the grim gates of Mordor lay a mire of reeking mud and foul-smelling pools, dotted with low hills of slag and earth piled up by the orcs in years of labour. This was the plain of Dagorlad, site of ancient battles. A cold wind swept across the plain on this dull morning, shaking the dry seed pods of the reeds, stirring up feeble siroccos of dust and ash, carrying the stench of sulphur and smoke from the interior, and reinforcing the impression that this was one of the lesser circles of hell. About the Black Gate there circled dark shapes that were not birds. The sheer, ugly mountain-walls seemed almost to brood like a living creature, aware of the coming storm.
The Captains of the West came within cry of the Black Gate, and unfurled the banner, and blew upon their trumpets. Heralds in their livery stepped forward and, scrolls flapping in the breeze, hurled their challenge at the silent listeners on the battlements.
'What are they saying?' muttered Ghurz, half-crouched in a pool of slimy water at the bottom of a crater.
'Doesn't matter. Doesn't matter. Come on.'
'Hang on, maybe there won't be a battle. Maybe they'll talk it out and decide on peace terms... '
Lurkh gave him a scornful look, and scrambled out of the crater.
But now the wind changed, and a veil of mist and smoke was drawn aside as neatly as a curtain. About a thousand paces in front of the two orcs two low hillocks were revealed, rising out of the marshy wasteland; and arrayed upon them were the serried, teeming ranks of the army of the Captains of the West. Armour glinting in the weak morning light, banners streaming in the stiff breeze, the greatest host to issue forth from the West in an Age stood before the Black Gate. Snatches of strange voices were carried by the wind.
Lurkh squeaked, and dropped to his belly. Scrambling through the rocks on his hands and knees, he tugged Ghurz down into another bog-hole.
Lurkh remembered his words to Ghurz those weeks ago, when he had first broached the Plan to him. 'In less than a month, I guarantee you, there will be an army before these gates, and – no, shut up and listen – and they will throw down the Black Tower and turn the country into a wasteland and put all of us poor creatures to the sword.' He had felt an insidious horror staring at the shining army on the hills. It was as if his nightmare had leaped out of his subconscious to become reality on this cold morning.
Orcs are not inclined towards religion, though they do pick up scraps of knowledge on the subject in order to blaspheme them. But crouched there, soaked to his skin, Lurkh felt a creeping belief – no, more, a certainty – in some deeper Power, some single will controlling all that happened on this morning. On all that had ever happened. Why did all the things he had lived through in his long lifetime – the rise of the Shadow, the endless wars, the deaths of comrades and foes, the horrific defeats and the worse victories, the burning cities and the fields of carrion, and all the countless, pointless little tragedies of existence in his times – these events, so seemingly inevitable and random at the time, why did they seem to rise to a point here, on this windswept patch of scrubland, on this dank morning? What mind could conceive of so vast and destructive a design? What will could set all these players on this vast board, then sit back and watch them play out their tragedy over and over? He could almost feel it, almost touch it, almost see that great wrinkled pair of eyes piercing through cloud and fog and staring directly at him.
'You sick puppy... ' he growled under his breath. 'You won't get me... '
And here I am, he thought, drumming his claws on the sodden, polluted soil. Biggest battle of the Third Age about to commence. Fleshbags to my left. Mad, torturing, sadistic brutes who want to flay me to my right. And I'm stuck between these two massive armies with a half-breed moron, stinking of crap, with two broken ribs and what I must hope is only a mild concussion. Next time I get the urge to Plan something, I must bang my head off a rock.
'I think something's happening,' called Ghurz from the edge of the hole. Lurkh crawled over and peeked over the rim. As he did so, trumpets blared at the Gate. The riders thundered back across the plain to their army, banners whipping in the wind.
'Maybe the War is over!' Ghurz turned to Lurkh eagerly. 'Maybe they've buried the... '
Drums rolled and fires leaped up. The great doors of the Black Gate ground open with a screaming protest of metal on metal. Out of it streamed a great host as swiftly as the raging ocean when it breaches a dike and reclaims its territory, submerging forever all those impertinent windmills and poppy fields. The mountainsides on either side of the Gate were alive and crawling with orcs, sprung from their hidden holds and coming down from the hills to join battle.
'... hatchet. Maybe not.'
Lurkh massaged his temples furiously and tried to push all useless thoughts of the grand design out of his head. 'Alright. Alright. We can just, ahhh, lie low until the front line passes us by, then dive in and try to work our way south till we can make a break for it. Alright?'
'Would you look at that... ?' Ghurz was engrossed in the spectacle. Companies of trolls, orcs and Easterlings, advancing at a run, poured across the pockmarked wasteland under ragged black banners, forming up to form a single wall of soldiers, a steel tide washing across the plain to the bastions of the Captains. There would be no retreat this time; among the orcs were many uruk-hais of great size, wielding whips and goads to urge the hordes on. Their harsh cries carried on the wind.
'Hey, I see the old 127th! Think they'll be the ones we end up with? Haha... '
'Get down from there! You don't seem to appreciate the gravity of the situation!'
Ghurz turned and looked down at Lurkh, adrenaline driving him into a near-frenzy. 'Well you seem to have been backing the wrong team all along. Have you seen the size of our army compared to theirs? We're gonna rip them to shreds!'
He's not acting like himself, thought Lurkh. No, it's the instincts. The old orcish bloodlust is finally coming to the surface. Pile on any amount of baggage, but we'll always be a bundle of instincts...
'We are no longer 'we', alright?' he snapped, as the mass of screaming, frenzied orcs drew level and flowed around the crater exactly like water wouldn't. He crouched, and shouted. 'The Hordes take a dim view of privates who sell them out, try to get them all killed and then hack their way out of prison. Don't you realise there's no going back and saying, "Sorry about the misunderstanding, but you know I didn't really want to betray you all."... ?'
There was a great roar as the first assault hit home. The Captains' line buckled under the relentless attack of the servants of Sauron. A gust of wind carried the sharp, rich scent of freshly-spilled blood downhill to pour into the crater.
Ghurz bared his fangs and spat. 'I don't know why I've been listening to you all this time. You were wrong, Lurkh. Wrong about everything. I thought you were smart, but you're not. You're a vain, bullying little ponze who thinks he's the troll's b*****ks just because he can read books. I'm sick of you. So I'm off.'
He pulled himself up out of the pit and ran off in the direction of the nearest orcish company.
'Go on, then! Ingrate! Fool!' screamed Lurkh. 'But I'm right! You'll see! I'm right!'
The foolish ingrate didn't turn, but disappeared into the fray.
'I'm always right,' he muttered petulantly, happy there was no-one there to hear him.
Against the mad, relentless assault of the hosts of Mordor the battle-line of the Captains of the West shrank uphill like a receding hairline. The onslaught of slave-soldiers broke like a wave on the beleaguered hills, retreated slightly leaving a tidal line of corpses and crashed forwards again, voices roaring like a tide amid the wreck and crash of arms. The sound of ten thousand swords hitting ten thousand shields ran together into a constant cacophony, a hymn of death. Trolls, huge shapes among the orcs, bellowed and swiped and gouged. War engines set among the hordes loosed balls of fire and dread on the ranks of men. Black, screeching shapes flashed overhead, and the sun glowed red. The air was thick with death agonies, chants and the fury of combat.
''Ingrate', sure... thinks he's a big shot... die like anyone else... '
His furious progress had brought Ghurz into the Haradrim lines. All around him they rushed, clattering figures in immaculate black-and-gold armour whirling their scimitars and yodeling enthusiastically. One of them caromed off him, and sent him spinning to the ground just as arrows began thudding around them. There was a sharply curtailed scream from above, and a man landed across Ghurz' legs clutching at his throat and bubbling.
Wide-eyed in horror, the orc scrabbled for a handhold to pull himself up – his questing hand found a rope - and he tugged himself up.
Rather more 'up' than he had intended.
Lurkh pushed his way through a jostling, stinking mass of orcs, all waving their weapons and shrieking unbearably. A little way ahead he saw the front line, where swords and spears rose and fell in a deadly dance. For a moment the line opened and he saw the Enemy. It was a tall, dark-haired man in armour, swinging a sword about his head and yelling a battle cry. Two uruk-hais fell before his blade, screeching horribly.
Go on, urged his treacherous orcish instincts. Attack him. If you cackle, pull an ugly face and wield your sword menacingly, he'll probably get scared and run off... what could possibly go wrong? So easy...
Lurkh shook his head clear. He was horrified to find himself pushing towards the front line, sword in hand. Those instincts were pretty strong. Now if he could find some quiet little corner of the battle where no-one would bother him...
'The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!' A great voice carried over the teeming armies, filling every ear.
'Ooooh,' croaked the orc next to him, a grizzled old campaigner with a split nose. 'Eagles! What're they gonna do, mess on us? Hahaha!'
The mob guffawed, there was some back-slapping and they all pushed forward with grunting effort. Lurkh felt himself carried along with them, jostled and urged forward by the armour-clad bodies around him, flotsam on the tide of soldiers. He turned decisively and pushed against the current of orcs.
''Scuse me, 'scuse me... ' He stuck out a foot and took the legs from under a running orc, then stepped daintily over him. The yowling creature was trampled by the next line of advancing soldiers. Lurkh sidestepped and crouched into the lee of a boulder, while orcs hurried by on all sides and volleys of arrows clouded the air. Safe and unnoticed for the moment, he tilted his sweaty helmet back and sighed. Every little part of his body was painful, from his twisted nose and bruised head to his broken ribs and aching feet...
From somewhere in the clouds a huge brown shape flashed down, struck the orcish hordes sending orcs flying, and rose again. It was only when he saw the great, wide wings pound down as it rose aloft again that he realised it was an eagle. The tremendous wind of its passage tossed soldiers into the air like dolls.
Right, he thought, time to no longer be here. When birdies with a thirty-foot wingspan drop from the sky, it's time to call it a day. And I am most certainly not worried about that damnfool Ghurz. Stupid boy. Deserves all he gets. Wouldn't listen to me...
Even in the midst of the battle, soldiers turned their heads at the violence of the curse the skinny orc screamed. It was the anguished utterance of one fighting a losing battle with their own conscience.
Lurkh pounded the boulder in frustration. Right. I'm going to find him... and I'm going to save him... and then I'm going to kill him, the reckless cretin, making me risk my neck like this... think he went this way...
It was only when he limped out from the shadow of the rock that he realised the front line had gotten perilously close – the humans had taken heart from the appearance of the Eagles, apparently. He turned on his heel to push back through the throng, only to be met by a foaming uruk-hai overseer, who pushed him forward roughly with the leather-bound butt of his great whip.
'You fight!' he roared indistinctly, over the din of the battle.
'Yes, but you see I've got this game leg, and -'
A great haymaker swing eviscerated the two orcs in front of Lurkh, and they collapsed bubbling onto the dirt. Over their bodies stepped a pale, glowing figure in a chased-gold breastplate and grey cloak.
He looked at Lurkh.
Lurkh looked at him.
Time seemed to slow.
'You... ' snarled the elf incredulously. Meneaer was having trouble believing his eyes. 'You... '
Lurkh had little doubt who it was, and he gave a frantic little scream, ducked under the overseer's outstretched arm, tripped and tumbled into another deep crater. He rolled painfully in a ball of limbs and splashed into the rainbow-shimmering water at the bottom, tingeing it black.
Meneaer cleared a space with another great swing, dispatched the overseer with a quick thrust, then hopped down lightly after the orc, who was stuttering and twitching in the slime. The elf had a cut running across his left cheek and the bruise on his forehead had turned an ugly purple. As he towered over Lurkh, with a grim smile playing across his lips, he looked like a vengeful god. Behind and above him, the battle raged. A tiny shape in the livid sky wheeled and descended.
The orc looked up and saw his death. 'Nyuhhh...nooo...'
Meneaer laughed, and the elf-lord's merriment was as the ringing of silver bells. 'I expect you did not think to ever see me again, did you, monster?'
Lurkh dribbled a little. The Eagle was swooping low over the ranks of terrified orcs, tearing at them with talons the size of a man.
'But we have an elvish soul-oath binding us, you see. Providence has brought me to you - I promised that I would kill you before all was over, and so I shall!'
He swung his shining sword down at Lurkh, exclaiming with exertion and delight. The orc whipped up his own sabre and blocked, but the cheap blade fractured and broke. Meneaer laughed again, and this time the silver bells carried a hint of madness.
'Valiant effort, for a rank sub-elf.' Lurkh scrabbled backwards and the elf advanced slowly, lips curling back to reveal his teeth in a dazzling smile.
Just for that moment the composed façade slipped; Lurkh looked into his advancing executioner's eyes and saw revealed the controlled insanity bubbling within. Here, he thought, is a crusader. He knows he's in the right because of what he is and what I am... erm...
'But you will die today anyway, along with all your foul kin, and your ugliness will be wiped from the world... '
He raised the gleaming elf-blade high above his head, his face radiant and fair as he cried:
Now several things happened all at once.
Lurkh, who could see what the elf couldn't and understood the concept of 'slipstream', formulated the shortest Plan of his life, dug his arms deep into the putrid soil and gripped.
The Eagle barreled overhead like a feathered lightning-bolt with a great screech; as it did so it thrashed its mighty wings down and up, like the hammer of the gods, and rose majestically into the sky.
The elf-lord raised one patrician eyebrow slightly, and half-turned.
A great wind beat the ground before shooting upwards in the wake of the Eagle.
Meneaer was plucked off his feet as by a giant invisible hand. The educated orc watched the fairy fly away.
The wind was a solid force.
It sucked him up, into the sky.
The crater, the orc, shrank beneath him.
It took the air from his lungs.
He flailed, to no avail.
All around him, air. Nothing solid.
At last, the ascent stopped.
It was nice.
He hung in the sky.
For a moment.
Then the descent began.
It was not nice.
This is not how it should end, he thought angrily.
It is not fair.
The blasted ground, littered with armour-clad corpses, rushed up to meet him like a big friendly dog.
Not so friendly, actually. Big, though.
Lurkh let his head fall back into the slimy water. He blinked once, twice, three times. He felt his pounding heartbeat start to slow. And then he did something curious. With the tide of battle turning, and desperate orcs rushing by on all sides, he fished in his pocket and drew out a much-folded leaf of paper. He studied for a moment, before reading to himself:
'"Tye-mancuva" equals "I am going to kill you".' He cracked a tiny smile. 'Well, fancy that.'
He closed his eyes and laughed for a little while. The laughter rose up, mixing with the fury of the living and cries of the dying.
The outside world intruded on his reverie in the form of a man. He was not a tall man, although he was quite comfortable around the middle, and he wore the sign of the White Tree on his breastplate. Holding out his spear to balance himself, he was gingerly edging his way down the opposite slope of the crater, when he noticed Lurkh. The orc was plastered in mud and so difficult to make out in the festering pool.
'Here's one!' bellowed the man. 'Don't move, monster! Don't move!'
Lurkh rose to his feet and picked some pondweed out of his mouth.
'Why not?' he asked.
'Eh?' The man was unnerved. They didn't usually talk back.
'Never mind. So... do we really have to do this? Can't we just get along?'
'No, I didn't think so. Humans have instincts too, I guess. Byeee... '
Lurkh scrambled nimbly up the crater side, felt a spear thump into the earth beside him, then he was over the edge and staggering off, sides burning with pain, legs weak under him. The orcish companies had already pulled back, leaving dense piles of twisted bodies, and he dodged around them now. There was a shout behind him, and arrows peppered the ground around him. Glancing back, he saw what looked like an entire battalion of men in plate armour rattling rapidly after him over the wasteland, waving swords and spears and yelling. Ordinarily it would have been no trouble to outrun them, but in his present condition... easier just to give up...
He gritted his teeth, concentrated his will and fought to block out the pain. Unfortunately with all this drama, he forgot to look where he was going and tripped over a corpse. Lurkh found himself face to face with the dead man, an Easterling. His mouth was open in shock; flies crawled over his ruined features. The orc yelped, and scrabbled along on his hands and knees through the rocks and buzzing bodies.
Grunting, his breaths shallow and uneven, Lurkh struggled to his feet to see a strange spectacle.
His pursuers had stopped in a rough semi-circle before him. Shifting about on their feet, hefting their weapons nervously. They stood silently, eyes wide with terror. Some of the more timid were whimpering slightly. Lurkh grinned madly, head lolling to one side with fatigue.
'That's right!' he yelled hoarsely, staggering a step forward, waving his arms wildly. 'Back, you sods! Back! Hehehehe... I've gotta Plan, an' I'm not afraid to use it... '
The legions swayed backwards a little.
Blood and teeth, thought Lurkh. I wonder if this would have worked before... ?
Further along the line, the battle was still going on. Distant cries and screams carried on the wind. But here there was a silent, frozen tableau.
'Why don't you... why don't you all... ' It finally dawned on the orc that the attention of the multitudes was not focussed on him. And surely he wasn't breathing that heavily... ? He turned. And looked up.
It towered over him, the Mûmak of Harad did. He quailed in its shadow. Tall as a house, grey as a mouse, mean as a rhino with a social disease; his legs were like great trees, his enormous sail-like ears spread out, long snout upraised like a serpent about to strike, his small red eyes burning with pachydermal insanity. His long, curving tusks were banded with gold and spattered with blood. Trappings of scarlet and gold flapped about him in tatters. On his back was strapped a great filigreed war tower, bristling with arrows, adorned with curling Easterling script and small pointed flags.
The massive creature let out a surprisingly shrill trumpeting noise, and stamped one great foot, shaking the earth. The assembled men jumped back a step.
'Lurkh? That you?'
It was absurd, of course, but that looked almost like Ghurz' head sticking out of the war tower. It disappeared for a moment, then returned.
'G-Ghurz? I, ahaha, I think I may be hallucinating... I've been under a little stress... '
'Could you come on up? Grab on somewhere... I'm having... a little trouble controlling this fellah... '
Lurkh gazed dumbly up at the heaving hill of flesh, and giggled madly.
'I was right, wasn't I?' he shouted weakly, his voice barely carrying over the fury of the battle. 'First, you have to admit that I was right!'
'What? What?' Ghurz' voice was strained.
Lurkh swiveled theatrically on his heel to take in the jostling, whispering wall of soldiers, and spread his arms in an all-encompassing gesture.
'We're doomed. Aren't we? We're dead. I was right!'
'Yeah, yeah, you were right, just come on... '
'I was right... ' chuckled Lurkh. 'That's good... '
And then, from hunger, loss of blood, concussion and sheer exhaustion, his legs buckled and he was unconscious before he hit the ground.
In the next and final chapter the King reflects on posterity, an old friend is revisited, we bid farewell to our heroes, and, with any luck, some form of closure is provided.